When it first opened in 1893, the train depot at the corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Chandler Boulevard was crucial to the rapid growth of the town that was first called Toluca, then Lankershim, and finally, North Hollywood.
In a few decades, the area was transformed from having only a few buildings and fruit farms to a bustling urban center.
"The community had 100,000 people in it by the 1940s. You could go down to Rathbun’s Department Store, at Lankershim and Weddington, and you’d be knocked into the street, there were so many people," said Guy Weddington McCreary, who grew up in North Hollywood. "People can’t visualize that today. But that’s what happened. I got knocked into the street, that’s why I remember it."
The depot still stands today, is one of the oldest existing structures in the San Fernando Valley, and has been named a cultural and historic monument by the city of Los Angeles, which means it would have to be restored or moved if the property were to be developed. Now, since the plan was first announced in 2000, it seems the Metro Transit Authority, which owns the depot, will be taking the first major step to fully restoring the Valley's oldest unmodified train station. See our related story: MTA's Long-Planned Restoration of Historic North Hollywood Train Depot Set to Begin
Weddington-McCreary's family first came to the area in the 1880s and was one of its original major developers. One of their ventures was the Bonner Fruit Company, which opened in 1907 and was located right next to the depot. For many years Lankershim was known as "The Home of the Peach," according to Weddington-McCreary.
"The depot was of vital importance not only to the community of Lankershim but the entire Valley," said Richard Hilton of the Museum of the San Fernando Valley. "The trains which hauled quarry rock from Chatsworth Park to San Pedro for the breakwater there went through this station, as did local produce which was shipped around the world."
Weddington-McCreary is head of the Save Lankershim Train Depot Committee, of which Hilton is also a member. In order to gather more information about the depot, Weddington-McCreary said he hired author David Coscia in 2009 to prepare a report for the committee on the history of the depot and its significance. In January, Coscia published a book, "PACIFIC ELECTRIC and the Growth of the San Fernando Valley," an extremely in-depth history of the Red Car trolleys in the Valley.
"It's very meticulous, it's very thorough," said CSUN history professor James Sefton, who taught a photography class Coscia attended, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. "From here on out, the book will obviously be, or should be, in the bibliographies of historians who are dealing with the Valley."
According to Coscia's report for the depot committee, which is titled "A History of North Hollywood and its Railroad Depot," the Southern Pacific Railroad company built the first railroad line from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the 1890s, and the Valley portion of the line, first called the Chatsworth Park Branch and then the Burbank Branch, started in Burbank and went through Toluca to Canoga Park and Chatsworth. The first public train, which also marked the opening of the Lankershim station, ran on Sept. 30, 1892. It is unclear if the depot had already been built on that date, according to Coscia, but he was able to confirm that it was open and running by the end of the year.
Coscia makes clear in the report that there is a difference in terminology between "depot" and "station." A station is simply a location on a railroad that tells you something is there, much like an address tells a person where something is located on a street. A depot is a structure at a station which has an office run by a railroad agent. First a depot, the agent at the North Hollywood location was removed shortly after it opened, according to Coscia, and went through periods of having one and not having one.
The Pacific Electric Railway Co.'s Red Car trolleys were built to run alongside the Southern Pacific railroad line and began operating in 1911. The depot was moved 50 feet to make room for the new Red Car line, according to Coscia. Through both World War I and World War II, freight trains and Red Car trolleys ran through the depot on a daily basis as the community of North Hollywood exploded in size.
Not long after the Red Car line opened, a company that ultimately called itself Asbury Transit started competing with the Red Cars by operating motor coaches, Coscia wrote in his book. But while North Hollywood continued to grow after WWII, the city no longer saw the need for trolleys in the sprawling Valley, as the automobile was fast becoming the preferred choice of transportation.
"While PE and Asbury Transit had been strong and competitive for several decades, by the early 1950s both would realize the futility of fighting their one common enemy — the private automobile," Coscia wrote in "PACIFIC ELECTRIC and the Growth of the San Fernando Valley."
The last Red Car —plastered with a sign that read 'By By 'Big Red,' according to a photo that appears in Coscia's book — left the North Hollywood depot bound for downtown on Dec. 28, 1952, and was soon replaced with a motor coach (bus) line. The automobile, and a cruising lifestyle, was fast overtaking the Valley. That same year the Valley Plaza shopping center in North Hollywood was opened, credited as the first major shopping center and department store located in the suburbs, near a freeway and with ample parking.
The depot still operated serving the Southern Pacific freight line until 1958, when the agent was removed. At that point, according to Coscia, Henricks Building Supply began selling building and lumber supplies out of the former depot and thrived until Southern Pacific abandoned the tracks in 1993, at which point Henricks closed. Since then, the depot has sat, abandoned but not forgotten. (See the attached photos of the depot after Henricks took over, courtesy of Terry Guy and his Flickr page.)
"The railroad depot at North Hollywood has faithfully served its community for over one-hundred ten years. It has seen steam locomotive, diesel locomotives, and streetcars," said Coscia in his report to the depot committee. "Today, passengers for the modern busway wait for a motor coach to carry them west or drop them off from their journey. Probably few notice the old wooden structure behind the chain link fence, and probably fewer still know its history. It is up to those living today to record its history, preserve the structure, and restore it for future generations living in North Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles."